Is going green a possibility for trade shows?
A long-overdue change
Thankfully, rather than being branded a clan of hemp-wearing conspiracy theorists, sustainability activists have grown to acquire a mainstream following. It is estimated 77% of the global population now views environmental damage as a serious concern. Each industry is having to look at its own processes to assess its culpability (some more than others), as the tide of popular opinion turns increasingly eco-centric. What of the exhibition industry? What can be done, what should be done, and what is being done currently to adhere to these new standards?
Unfortunately, the events industry is not the easiest to turn ‘green’. In 2019, it was reported that the UK events industry emits 1.2bn kg of CO2 per year, partly due to unoptimized diesel generators rendering air quality in green areas worse than in major cities. Events produce a huge amount of waste, with swag bags, single-use banners, single-use booths, flyers, giveaways and many items of paraphernalia designed with the good intention of titillating attendees, that ultimately end up somewhere lodged in a turtle’s airways. However, there are steps that can be taken to cut down on these waste products that are steadily clogging up the planet’s pores.
A process that was well underway pre-Covid has been thrust forward at breakneck speed, as reducing paper and material contact is preferable not only for the environment but also for virus transmission. Any and all processes that can be digitized, should be, such as ticketing, accommodation planning and pre-event advertising.
Some activists have declared that digitization should be expanded to the point where events are actually held virtually. From an environmental perspective, this is, indeed beneficial, but also defeats the entire point of an ‘event’ in the first place (opening a Zoom tab does not equate to attending an event).
So how far can the industry go in this eco-digital pursuit? The great barrier we are unable to cross is seemingly that of the physical venue. By definition, an event requires people to gather in a given location, and waste is an inevitable byproduct. However, the elimination of handouts and flyers, increasing use of digital screens to display information are all positive steps that can be taken.
Venue choice is arguably one of the most important decisions an event planner makes, and one that has a significant impact on the footprint left by an event. Opting for a venue that is powered by renewable energy and with a carefully-considered approach to waste handling is essential for earning the ‘green’ stamp of approval. Another component is transportation: if the event will be attracting international visitors, choosing a location that requires multiple connecting flights drastically increases emissions. Locations that are accessible via direct flights are much more sustainable.
The case of the exhibition stand
For trade shows, if there is one single element of infrastructure to consider, it’s the exhibition stand. Historically, these have been single-use, one-off structures, designed to suit a specific show and a specific space. Traditional building methods, using a timber frame, panels, paints, glues and plastics, result in stands that have to be completely torn apart to deconstruct. While more and more companies are turning to reusable solutions, the largest stands in the hall generally still use this method. At the end of the show, the materials end up in a skip, incurring yet more costs with the immense transportation required to transfer them offsite.
What should the industry be doing, moving forward, to avoid producing this surplus? As important as environmental sustainability is, so is financial viability, or the changes will not survive the test of time. As such, building 100% eco-friendly stands is currently not an option. However, a way to dramatically reduce stand building footprint is using modular, reusable stands.
Companies like Quadrant2Design that reuse frames on a continual basis provide the current best solution for the issue of exhibit stand sustainability. The Bournemouth-based company has individual frames that have been in use in the exhibition circuit for nearly 20 years, with 25 to 30 uses per year, amounting to a total of 500 applications. With this modular solution, Quadrant2Design is able to remain competitive whilst maintaining a relatively low footprint, by extending product lifecycle so dramatically. An added bonus is the stands are collapsible and thus transportable by vans rather than their bigger, gas-chugging counterpart, the lorry.
Use of handouts
There has always been a certain tension between the more radical green activists in favor of rapid, drastic change, and the professionals (such as those in the events industry) who still must make a living, and prefer practical changes implemented over time that will not sink their business. Many small business owners feel they need to offer a selection of pamphlets and informative literature about their business, or else risk missing out on opportunities to hook otherwise-interested customers.
In reality, many, if not most pamphlets, are picked up (perhaps out of politeness) and promptly discarded into the nearest bin. In a large-scale event, these materials add up to a huge sum. In the digital age, the best way of offering individuals the chance to connect with your business is via a scannable QR code somewhere in plain sight. Not only is this easy and cheap, but it also demonstrates that your business takes the environmental issue seriously, which might even attract more visitors.
Food and drink will inevitably be served at any event. I’m sure many of you have seen those unsightly photos of a post-festival cleanup, as a few brave souls march across an apocalyptic landscape of discarded plastic. Short of letting everyone starve (unlikely to foster repeat attendance), event planners can’t completely cut down on food-related waste. What they can do, however, is organize the event such that catering is handled efficiently by a single entity, or as few as possible, and that sensible, sustainable choices are made by the caterer.
It’s safe to say that most people do not envy the position of event planners in 2021. What with a scuppered profit margin caused by the pandemic, and the difficulty of balancing financial concerns with environmental issues, the task before them is a daunting one. However, with the explosion of events that will hopefully take place once we emerge from our chrysalis of social confinement, organizers should be crawling out of their current financial predicament. Then, there will be time to address the ever-important question of dodging a full-blown environmental catastrophe.